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Garner’s Murder in El-Khazen’s “Hummingbird Effect”

Justine El-Khazen’s lyrical piece was an attempt to make sense of Eric Garner’s senseless murder. She was able to learn more about the case by going beyond the news footages, news reports, and even beyond the uncut version of the recorded event via YouTube. She was able to have a deeper understanding of the rippling impact of “the chokehold” (Sanchez, 2014, par. 1) and the desperate cries of “I can’t breathe” (Baker, Goodman, & Mueler, 2015, par.1) by leveraging the power of empathy. El-Khazen’s insights cuts through the layers of noise and subterfuge after she tried to comprehend what it was like walking in Garner’s shoes and undestanding how viewers felt after watching the unintended yet excessively violent actions that was seen all over the globe. She used empathy coming from multiple perspectives, and at the end she was able to see the big picture – the hummingbird effect.

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In July of 2014, Eric Garner was stopped by two police officers. Garner’s instinctive reaction was to raise the level of his voice, refuse to cooperate, and made a lot of fracas in order to call attention to potential eyewitnesses (Baker et al., 2015). His ploy worked like a charm. The officers’ unwittingly obeyed, or it seems, they had no other choice except to let him go. The New York Times reported, “on that sweltering day in July, the officers left him with a warning (Baker et al., 2015, par. 2). One month later, one of the officers came back with a new partner, and he made his intentions to handcuff Garner and bring him to a nearby police station. CNN’s official website made the following report: “During the encounter, Garner raised both hands in the air and told the officers not to touch him” (Sanchez, 2014, par.3). Garner’s recent victory emboldened him to persist in maintaining his innocence and imagining once again the ideal scenario wherein police officers left him where he stood.

The confrontation in a public area was characterized as a defiant stance made more problematic by the fact that Garner weighed approximately 350 pounds and built like a professional football player (Sanchez, 2014). The climax to the story occurred quickly, “seconds later, a video shows an officer behind him grab the 350-pound man in a choke hold and pull him to the sidewalk, rolling him onto his stomach (Sanchez, 2014, par. 3).

As the officers forced him to the ground, it became apparent that Garner was physically unfit to receive such a high level of physical contact, a swarm of officers constricted what was already an extremely confined space when the victim was sandwiched between two men in a three-way wrestling match. It was at this time when the desperate cry was heard, “’I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!’ Garner said repeatedly, his cries muffled into the pavement” (Sanchez, 2014, par. 5). In fact, one report says there was “11 please for breath” (Baker et al., 2015, par. 9). Gamer died on the spot. The crucial actions that preceded his untimely demise was captured in a digital video-recording device (Sanchez, 2014).

Different Perspectives

Just like the millions of people who had access to the damning video showing police brutality at its most dangerous incompetence, El-Khazen struggled to make sense of the crime. Her lyrical work was her attempt to express her insights, and she started the process by describing her feelings intertwined with how she imagined the public’s disgust and anger. However, she also saw it from the perspective of the man on the ground, as if she was the one being pilloried by the alleged perpetrators of the said crime. She wrote the following lines: “after seeing it so many times, a rusty twinge, ancient amphora that holds the sacred mystery of your life” (El-Khazen, 2016, par. 1). The author borrowed a term that ancient people used to describe a delicate container. Thus, it was made clear that she was talking about the heart. However, it was not clear if she was talking about Garner’s heart only or if she was also talking about hers and the people who were affected by the video’s graphic images. Consider the following line: “a single burning anvil of thoughts, feelings, oxygen bursting in every sparkly cell as your brain unwinds this wandering sentence, all of you intact but strange somehow, awake to your vulnerability, your powerlessness, as you watch this video you’ve seen a countless times, again” (El-Khazen, 2016, par. 1). The paragraph’s ending did not only confirm how she empathized with the victim and the general public, she also confirmed how she viewed the event as an examplification of the so-called hummingbird effect.

The Hummingbird Effect

El-Khazen did not elaborate with regards to the meaning behind the title “Hummingbird Effect.” However, one can make the conjecture that at the time of writing Steven Johnson’s book “How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World” was at the peak of its popularity, and within its pages, one can read the concept Johnson called the “hummingbird effect.” It was a framework in understanding how one action unexpectedly leads to a related but different event. Johnson was quoted saying, “Someone comes up with a new technology to solve a problem, but the solution also has an effect on seemingly unrelated fields” (Bargmann, 2014, par. 1). In the case of El-Khazen’s lyrical masterpiece, the unintended effect was the awakening of people’s sense of vulnerability and powerlessness. As a result, “thousands of demonstrators poured out in cities across the country in a show of outrage over a grand jury’s decision not to indict a white New York City police officer whose chokehold caused an unarmed black man’s death” (Southall, 2014, par. 1). El-Khazen saw the big picture, but she started at a place of empathy.


An in-depth study of El-Khazen’s powerful masterwork caused the possible discovery as to the technique she uses in order to see the big picture. She leverages the power of empathy. It was not only the ability to empathize from one perspective, it was also the uncanny gift of feeling the pain, outrage, and disgust from multiple points of view. When she brought everything to bear, she saw the hummingbird effect of the senseless murder of an unarmed African American man. One can argue that she validated the essential aspect of this theory, when she suggested that protesters poured out to the street after the people felt suffocated when they heard Garner say, “I can’t breathe.” Mass action was made possible after they empathized with the victim. In other words, it is important to consider empathy’s rippling power across the nation, especially in a case like this one.

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